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Health Risks of Alcohol and Drug Abuse

Many Americans abuse alcohol and illegal drugs without thinking about the possible risk to their health and well-being.


Traffic accidents are the number one cause of death among Americans ages 15 to 20, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nearly one-third of fatal traffic accidents involve an alcohol-impaired driver.

Even small amounts of alcohol, such as one or two standard drinks, which is equivalent to one or two 12-ounce cans of beer, can affect your judgment and coordination. This increases the chance that you will be involved in an accident. Moderate amounts also affect your ability to learn and remember information. High amounts can cause alcohol poisoning, resulting in death.

Women who drink alcohol while pregnant may give birth to infants with birth defects and mental retardation.

Illegal drugs

Drugs change your perception. They affect how your brain works, including your memory. They cause a variety of potentially serious or fatal physical conditions.

These drugs have specific health risks:

  • Cocaine. Cocaine in any form can cause sudden death from cardiac arrest. Cocaine stimulates the central nervous system, which then raises blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature. Injecting cocaine by sharing drugs or devices used to prepare the drugs can lead to HIV infection and hepatitis.

  • Marijuana. Marijuana increases heart rate, affects memory and comprehension, and makes it more difficult to perform tasks requiring concentration and coordination, such as driving a car. The drug also affects motivation, which has an impact on school and work, and, like smoking cigarettes, can lead to lung diseases, including cancer.

  • Prescription drug abuse. Over 7 million Americans used prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes in the past month. Commonly abused medications include OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, as well as Ritalin and Adderal. OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet abuse can result in a fatal overdose due to low blood pressure and depressed breathing rate. Ritalin or Adderal abuse can cause very high blood pressure, irregular heart rate, and high body temperature.

  • Methamphetamine. This drug can increase heart rate, raise blood pressure, and decrease appetite, which can lead to severe weight loss. High doses can cause tremors, delusions, paranoia, and death.

  • Anabolic steroids, such as testosterone. Steroid users can suffer side effects ranging from acne to liver cancer. In males, use can cause withered testicles, sterility, and impotence. In females, irreversible masculine traits can develop, for example, baldness, increases in body hair growth, including a beard, and voice changes. Psychological effects in both sexes include aggressive behavior and depression. Some side effects, such as heart attack and stroke, may occur years after use.